Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic won the 2015 men’s singles championship at Wimbledon at a significant moment in European geopolitics. The United Kingdom, host to the annual tennis tournament, had just drafted and submitted a United Nations Security Council resolution to mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Leaders in both Serbia and Bosnia’s autonomous Republika Srpska (ethnic Serb enclave) responded angrily. Zeljka Cvijanovic, prime minister of Republika Srpska, called the move “an attack,” according to Reuters. Djokovic’s victory, in this sense, was seen as decisive rejoinder—particularly sharp, given Britain’s Andy Murray having finished third.
One might expect Djokovic to take up the mantle of national idolatry with pride. On the contrary, the Serbian champion has chosen to be an exemplar of modern-day Balkan unity.
Most recently, he traveled to a tennis tournament in Umaga, Croatia, in July, where he posed for photos with Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Some raised objections on social media, including a blogger whose complaints were translated by Balkanist, highlighting his partial-Croatian and Montenegrin ancestries (though he was born in Belgrade):
“He promoted Croatian tourism in the company of a politician who shamelessly denies the Ustasha crimes against the Serbs in World War II. While the high-ranking swimmer Milorad Cavic was disqualified from a tournament because he wore a shirt that said ‘Kosovo is Serbia,’ Djokovic didn’t even play for the Serbian team against Argentina in the Davis Cup. He did, however, find the time to meet with the radical HDZ member and chat, apparently about returning signs in Cyrillic to state institutions in Croatia. There are no details on whether they went to ‘Lora’ for coffee after the meeting.”
Others felt it was an impeccable example of informal diplomacy:
“Top sportsman, polite young man, true representative of the average citizen, agreed to be photographed with the president of neighboring Croatia, taking national interests to heart—behaving like a real ambassador of Serbia. He’s a king; thank God he’s alive at the same time as I am—a true Serb to be proud of!”
But this isn’t the first time Djokovic has flexed the ambassadorial muscle. At an American tennis tournament in 2013, his nationality was mistaken for Croatian, and he came under intense fire from Serbian nationalists for responding, “I don’t mind you calling me Croat … Serbs and Croats, it’s almost the same.”
In March of this year, Djokovic praised Serbian tennis fans for applauding the Croatian national anthem in the first-round tie between the two countries at the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) Davis Cup. “We were very pleased when we heard the reception the fans gave to the Croatians and the respect they showed for their national anthem,” Djokovic told the ITF. “That’s something that you don’t see very often because the wounds of the war are still fresh.”
And he is by no means unscarred. A 12-year-old Djokovic, along with fellow Serbian tennis player Jelena Jankovic, “would sometimes have to disappear into a bomb shelter when their practice in an empty swimming pool, which had been turned into a makeshift tennis court, was alarmingly interrupted” by bombers flying overhead during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, according to The Telegraph. “All of us who went through that came out with their spirit stronger,” he once said. “Now we appreciate the value of life. We know how it feels to be living in 60 square meters being bombed.”
It’s clear that appreciation is fueling the tennis player’s pacifist politics. True nationalism, after all, is concerned with the preservation of a nation. And this, Djokovic knows, is more threatened by jingoism than bolstered by it.